1. Attorney General Jeff Sessions found himself in some difficulty recently because:
a) he has been using a private email server
b) he lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings
c) the Democrats don't like him
d) he gave a speech that was copied from Barack Obama
2. During Sessions' Senate confirmation hearings, he denied having any contact with
b) Russian officials
c) his high school history teacher
d) his immigrant gardener
e) Donald Trump
3. Which of the following has NOT been attributed to Russia
a) the invasion of Crimea
b) the assassination of political opponents to Russian President Vladimir Putin
c) the hacking of the Democratic National Committee
d) the bombing of London during World War II
e) the dissemination of fake news on the internet
Tell students that today, we’ll explore the controversy over Russia a little further. Ask students to read the material below, or share the information with them.
A Russian Controversy
In June 2016, newspapers were reporting that the Democratic National Committee's emails had been hacked and that U.S. intelligence agencies suspected the Russian government was responsible. Next came Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's claim that the leak of politically damaging emails (showing that the DNC was favoring Clinton over her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders) was intended to help Donald Trump. Since then, there has been a steady trickle of stories documenting ties between Donald Trump and Russia, and the Trump campaign and Russia.
Evidence of the Trump/Russia connection began to mount:
- Trump and some of his key supporters have had extensive business deals in Russia
- Trump advisors Carter Page and Roger Stone had contact with numerous Russian officials
- Donald Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin
- Trump also downplayed the importance of Russia's annexation of Crimea and questioned U.S. support for NATO, the Western military alliance that Putin has criticized
Then, in February 2017, President Trump's National Security Advisor, Michael T. Flynn, was forced to step down after it was revealed that he had lied about having discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador while Barack Obama was still president.
On March 1, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s newly confirmed Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, had twice spoken to the Russian ambassador in 2016 - despite having specifically denied having any contacts with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation hearings.
This has raised several concerns. First, did Sessions perjure himself during his testimony (that is, lie under oath)? And, given his role as the country's top law enforcement officer and FBI chief, would Sessions be able to conduct impartial investigations of the Trump administration’s possible collusion with the Russians? On March 2, Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from any investigations involving the Trump campaign. (That is, he will not be involved in any investigations.)
As reported by the Washington Post:
Jan 10, 2017. At a hearing on Sessions’ nomination to serve as attorney general held by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked about a CNN report on Russian ties to the Trump campaign that came out that day.
SEN. AL FRANKEN: "...if there was any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this (2016) campaign, what would you do?
SESSIONS: "I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."
Jan. 17. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sent Sessions a lengthy letter asking about Russia, among other things.
SEN. PATRICK J. LEAHY: Several of the President-elect's nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?"
As of early March 2017, it seems likely there will be multiple investigations into the Trump-Russian connections. Congressional committees, intelligence agencies, and the Justice Department are all considering inquiries. While the Democrats are demanding an independent investigation, the Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches of government and are anxious to limit the bad press.
Here are some of the issues involved.
No evidence has yet been made public to support charges of Russian responsibility or Trump campaign complicity in interfering in the 2016 election. The information has all been leaked (presumably) by one of the U.S.’s many spy agencies. These agencies operate in secret realms and frequently use manipulation and deceit to fight foes foreign and domestic, with motives that are not always obvious. In addition, the lead investigatory agency, the FBI, is extremely political and is said to have warring factions within it.
If indeed the Russians are manipulating our elections, most Americans would agree that this manipulation must be stopped. However, evidence so far is lacking. Meanwhile, though, there is abundant evidence that fair elections in the U.S. are hampered by laws that discourage people from voting and by the crazy-quilt voting districts that result from gerrymandering.
2016 was the first presidential election in a half century that was held without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As the New York Times notes, in Wisconsin, Republicans had passed a law limiting the type of ID voters could use at the polls. Studies show that such "voter suppression" laws disproportionately reduce Democratic turnout because low-income and immigrant voters (mostly Democrats) frequently lack the appropriate ID. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2016 turnout dropped 41,000 votes from the 2012 total, and declines in voting were greatest in areas where lack of IDs was most common. Donald Trump won Wisconsin by about 27,000 votes.
Even if the Russians did not help Trump to win the election, we do have a president who admires the authoritarian leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin. President Trump has praised other dictatorial leaders as well, including Saddam Hussein (the former Iraqi leader), Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Many critics charge that Trump’s own authoritarian traits—secrecy about his business interests, scapegoating, delegitimizing the courts and the press, ultranationalism—are putting American democracy at risk.
- The White House has said that charges about Trump’s team colluding with the Russian government are a distraction from issues Americans really care about. Do you agree?
- Why do you think that, compared to the Russia issue, there has been so little attention paid to the issue of voter suppression, which may have changed the outcome of the U.S. election?
- The U.S. has a history of intervening in other nations’ elections, including through disinformation campaigns and leaks. Does that make it okay for the Russians to interfere in U.S. elections? Why or why not?
- Do you think it's possible that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to help get him elected? Why or why not?
- If you are concerned about the Trump administration’s Russian connections and possible election interference, what can you do about it? Work with students to come up with possible action steps.